Tristram Shandy (Sterne)

Sterne, Laurence.  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Before you judge Tristram Shandy for not having a plot, tell me the metanarrative of Seinfeld.  Shandy’s lack of plot does make for difficult reading, but there are a few ways to approach it.  C. S. Lewis said to treat it as breakfast reading–a few chapters here and there.  That could work.  For a while I read ten pages at a time.  Another approach is to find a good audio version, especially one that does accents.  That brings out the real humor and goodness of men like Trim.

The postmodern university professor says there is no meaning, as each sign is simply a deferral from yet another sign, and on to infinity.  Tristram Shandy, although somewhat guilty of infinite tangents, parts company with the university professor.  There is meaning (and goodness).  The difficulty is that a conversation can’t be locked into place.

If it is hard to locate the actual narrative, one might better focus on the spontaneity of words and “free associations in the mind” (cf. lecture on Tristram Shandy by Leo Damrosch in the Great Courses).

Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, is an amateur philosopher. Toby, Tristram’s uncle, likes to play war games.  As a result, and one chief line of comedy in this book, is they are always talking past each other.

Shandy tells of his Uncle Toby and Toby’s accident, being wounded in the groin.  From there Toby develops an interest in fortification theory.

Idea: Tristram begins with his own conception, suggesting that the bizarre nature of it (e.g., his mother asking about a clock) determines his destiny.


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